Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Role of the Tipsy Coachman

A subject about which I hear a fair number of questions is appellate review of legal interpretations made by trial judges. There is a perception that appellate courts are courts of "justice" and that their function is to find the "right" outcome in any given set of facts. Appellate courts are not, they are courts of "error," and their functions are primarily to correct mistakes of the trial judge and to provide a homogenization of legal interpretations, a continuity and consistency to various trial judges' decisions. 

In 1879, Rutherford Hayes was president of the United States, and the Georgia Supreme Court rendered a decision that helped explain how appellate courts should address trial judge errors. The case was Lee v. Porter, 63 Ga. 345 (1879). The decision analogized an even older poem, Retaliation, by Oliver Goldsmith, to illustrate the concept of arriving at the right decision by a flawed analysis. 

The Florida Supreme Court adopted the Georgia analysis almost a century later in Carraway v. Armour & Co. 156 So.2d 494 (Fla. 1963). Retaliation is lengthy, too lengthy for this post, but various courts have quoted a few lines over the years as the Lee analysis has been adopted in various jurisdictions. 
The pupil of impulse, it fore'd him along, His conduct still right, with his argument wrong; Still aiming at honour, yet fearing to roam, The coachman was tipsy, the chariot drove home; . . .
And the focus became the "tipsy coachman," despite whom the "chariot drove home." The outcome, or "conduct" being "right" though the "argument wrong." The point is that the trial judge reached the right outcome of some legal decision, albeit for the wrong reason. This "tipsy coachman" rule has become a staple of American jurisprudence, with appellate courts striving to find a way to avoid reversing trial decisions; even if it is a way that never occurred to the trial judge in making the decision. 

This is troublesome to many. There are those who believe that it is the job of trial judges to make correct decisions, and when a judge falls short of the finish line in such endeavors, they believe that appellate courts should say so, correct them, and in the spirit of a patient piano teacher make the trial court do it again. But, doing it again in the practice of law and trials is an expensive proposition. Dockets are crowded, trials take time, and lawyers, witnesses, jurors and more all cost money. 

So, the courts concluded that when the right outcome has been reached, even by a possibly circuitous and incorrect route, the real point is that the correct destination was reached (the "chariot" made it home). The appellate court may write an opinion to explain the flaws in the trial judge's route, that is of value to the next trial judge that finds her or himself facing that challenge, but the outcome of the case is affirmed. 

This is a s subject that lawyers and judges discuss. It is a familiar conversation piece, the "tipsy coachman." There are many references, in legal cases, newspaper articles, law journals, and more. But it is not a subject with which non-lawyers are necessarily conversant, and it can lead to some interesting conversations with non-lawyers curious about court decisions and the treatment given them in the news. 

What is less discussed is the potential for trial judges to apply a similar analysis in deciding cases. If it is appropriate for the appellate court to ignore the trial judge's logic and analysis and affirm the outcome, is it appropriate for the trial judge to ignore the attorney or party's flawed logic and yet agree with the ultimate outcome that they advocate, whether that is an award or denial of benefits?

Each side in litigation seeks a particular outcome. They have researched and read, analyzed and argued, and they hope that some trial judge or jury will agree with the facts and law that lead to an favorable outcome. And yet, there are times that the logic and analysis may be strained, contorted, and sometimes just patently wrong. Sometimes, it appears that some small fork in the analysis road was erroneously selected, and that the errors cascaded onward from there. 

Sometimes, the error can be contagious. One party insisting that some issue is critical, can lead the other party to simply deny the relevance of that issue. In some instances, though, the other party becomes infected with the virus of that erroneous tangent and both parties begin to argue, research, and write about things that are not really relevant to the outcome of the case. Having followed their erroneous path into a forest, they focus increasing attention on some ultimately irrelevant tree.

What is the role of the trial judge? Ultimately, in workers' compensation, there is no jury to undertake deciding the difficult issues, to resolve the conflicts in facts and allegations. This is true in many other legal proceedings also, and the trial judge is left to both determine the disputed facts and apply the correct law. And, for the most part, judges are usually adept at spotting erroneous analysis. This is not because they are any more perceptive than the lawyers, it is more likely because the trial judge does not live with the litigation as it progresses and develops, and is therefore a fresh set of eyes, looking at the end result of the lawyer's efforts. 

Some would argue that the trial judge's job is to reconcile the legal authorities, those statutes, rules, and prior decisions (published cases) that the parties bring to trial. They would say that the trial judge role is to decide whether the legal analysis of party "A" or party "B" is correct, and to accept and follow the better of the two analyses. 

Others would argue that if the argument is perceived as flawed, the trial judge should instead apply her or his own legal research and analysis to the facts, and follow the law as the judge sees it, even if that analysis is not something conceived of, argued by, or even necessarily understood by the parties to the case. They would contend that the trial judge has the obligation to reach the "right" decision even when that would come as a complete surprise to the parties to the case.  

It is an interesting debate. One upon which those trained in the law, and accustomed to litigation do not necessarily agree. And, one that those outside of the legal profession find confounding and confusing. It is therefore a discussion that is likely to continue.